TEL AVIV — Israeli police have used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to remotely access, control and extract information from cellphones belonging to Israeli citizens, including leaders of a protest movement against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to an investigation published Tuesday in the Israeli outlet Calcalist.
The military-grade software developed by the private Israeli company NSO was also used to target a number of people who were not suspected of involvement in a crime, including mayors, former government employees and at least one person close to a senior politician, according to the report.
“As a general policy, we do not comment on current or potential clients,” the NSO Group said in a statement published by Israeli media. “We would like to clarify that the company does not operate the systems in its customers’ possession and is not involved in their operation. The company sells its products under license and supervision for the use of security bodies and state law enforcement agencies, to prevent crime and terrorism legally, and according to court orders and local law in each country.”
Israeli police denied the allegations, saying that “all police activity in this field is done in accordance with the law, on the basis of court orders and strict work procedures.”
State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman launched an investigation into the issue as part of a broader probe into the ethical use of technology in law enforcement.
“Technology provides evidence in criminal proceedings and raises questions around the balance between their usefulness and the violation of the right to privacy and other freedoms. These measures also raise risks of that personal information getting leaked or misused in databases,” he said.
Several human rights organizations sent a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit requesting that the software’s use be halted immediately, saying that it was impossible to regulate and that the damage it caused outweighed the benefits. The letter also called on Mandelblit to reopen legal cases that included evidence obtained through Pegasus.
Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev said he was looking into the issue but that an initial check found “no practice of secretive wiretapping, or intrusion into devices, by the Israeli police without the approval of a judge.”
“At the same time, I intend to ensure that no corners are cut on the subject of NSO and that everything will be checked thoroughly and unequivocally by a judge,” he added.
The Calcalist investigation said police began using the software in 2020 to remotely surveil the phones of prominent activists of the “Black Flag” protest, which called for the ouster of Netanyahu, who was then prime minister, amid a surge of coronavirus cases, an economic crisis and an ongoing corruption trial.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, left office in June 2021 but remains embroiled in a corruption trial.
The report said NSO spyware was used to collect data on citizens to be used as leverage if they became subjects of an interrogation at a later date.
In July, an investigation by The Washington Post and a consortium of 16 media partners revealed that Pegasus has been licensed by NSO to governments around the world for the purpose of tracking terrorists and criminals. But it found that the program was used to hack 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to the slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The targets’ phones were among more than 50,000 numbers compiled by countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens and to have been NSO clients.
In an interview with The Post in July, NSO founder Shalev Hulio said some of NSO’s government customers had misused its software in the past, describing such misuse as a “violation of trust.” He said NSO closed five clients’ access in the past several years after conducting a human rights audit and ended ties with two in the past year alone.
“There is one thing I want to say: We built this company to save life. Period,” he said.
According to those familiar with the company’s clientele, NSO had agreements with countries with which Netanyahu had sought to forge alliances, including the United Arab Emirates, which signed a normalization agreement in September 2020, and Saudi Arabia, which Netanyahu for years attempted to court.
In Israel, the police first acquired Pegasus from NSO in 2013 and began operating it in 2015, under Netanyahu’s term as prime minister. It cost police tens of millions of shekels throughout the years, according to the Calcalist report.
As the protest movement against Netanyahu intensified, a diverse group of opposition parties reached an agreement in May to form a unity government and remove him from office.
“In a broader sense, this only underscores how important it was that hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens went out to defend Israeli democracy,” Shikma Schwartzman, one of the protest movement leaders, told the Israeli news outlet Ynet. “This is another example of the previous regime, headed by a criminal defendant, and where Israeli democracy has reached.”